Angelique's father must promise her to wed - but what if the worst man wins?
The morning salt air was sharp, and MacGwire hated rising to it. Fifteen years in the small cove-bound fishing village of Black Cliffs, and still not a day greeted him that he did not resent every dark grain of sand on the beach. Sighing as only a man chained to fate can do, he stumped into the tiny kitchen.
MacGwire squinted through the window against the new dawn. Yes, there she was, red hair gleaming in the morning light as she stood on the small, wide area on the cliff side. Though he hated the thought of her being up so high, especially when the morning breeze was stiff, Angelique had stood there every morning for two years, gazing out over the water. MacGwire could barely see the streamer fluttering in her hand, though well he knew she had it: a cloth white as pure love, with an ocean-blue diagonal stripe forever separating two red crosses, as she and Roddy were now separated by the wide blue ocean. It was a miniature of the flag she had made for his boat before he left, gone off to seek his fortune.
Suddenly, his chest tightened horribly, and he barely hobbled to the door in time when great racking coughs tore from his lungs, bringing up phlegm brightly spotted with fresh blood. When the spell was over and MacGwire could breathe again, he turned over the soiled dirt to hide it from Angelique. She must not know, not yet. Finished and exhausted, the stained shovel hid behind the woodpile, he slumped on the porch step. Two weeks — if he could just live for two more weeks.
The crunch of sand announced the arrival of the first man. Sighing wearily, he rose on shaky legs and went out to the shoreline.
“Jason Stewart, that boat’ll be wanting a new hull if ye dinna quit grinding it on the beach!” More than he hated the ocean, MacGwire hated the abuse of good wood, especially his own workmanship. Once a craftsman in a Scottish forest, a hard winter just after Angelique’s first birthday saw him burning his unsold dowry chests and lover’s seats to stay warm. His wife fell asleep every night fighting sickness and the bitter cold, and one morning did not awaken. At the first bird’s song of spring, MacGwire brought his tiny daughter to the English seacoast. Now he turned the King’s trees into boats and barrels for fishermen who knew nothing of fine wood crafting. If it floated or held fish, they were happy. But it put food on his table and a fire in the hearth.
A tired sigh mingled with the sea breeze, for today he would betroth Angelique to one of these fishermen. Six village men responded to his announcement: he would pledge Angelique to whoever showed himself the best provider. MacGwire had bowed his heart before the crush of poverty, but swore his daughter never would. She was only 16, but he was near death, and she must be taken care of.
This was the fourth and last day, and Jason and the four others now coming had fished all night again. Their faces were drawn and haggard as they beached their boats, yet each had a ray of hope in their tired eyes. MacGwire went from boat to boat, calculating a total of four day’s catch for each man, determining the winner. Any one of the five would be a worthy man, but he wanted naught but the best provider for Angelique. He opened his mouth to declare a name, but a shout from the water interrupted his announcement. As one all turned to see the sixth man coming, and as one all groaned.
Ian Innis was a shifty-eyed, smooth-talking rodent of a man. He was never seen working more than a day in every month, yet he always had money. He strutted about in his finery, sailed the most expensive boat MacGwire could make, and never lacked for a crown in his pocket. Rumor said he raided the traps of poachers to fill his own boat. His hands were too soft, his skin too white for a man who lived by fishing, yet he always had large catches.
Like today, when Ian’s boat lay so low in the water that he could not come all the way up the beach. Sure enough, an even dozen of the King’s largest salmon lined the bottom of the hull, with a few sea bass as well. MacGwire’s heart sank.
“Well, old man? When can I claim my woman?” Ian’s voice, when he wasn’t stealing a man’s money or a woman’s virtue, grated like barnacles on the skin. He pulled a farthing from a clinking leather bag and tossed it to the poorest of the others. “Here, Dennis, clean these for me? There’s a good lad. I’ll be wanting fresh salmon from my wife tonight.”
“You’ll be wanting to keep a civil tongue in your head!” growled MacGwire. “The parson’s not due for two weeks; the wedding will be then.” He got face to nose with Ian, not at all pleasant. “Besides, it be difficult to speak wedding vows from the belly of a fish!”
Ian grinned insolently. MacGwire had given his word, and that was that. “Can’t a man dream of the future?” With that, he scurried up the winding path up the face of the cliff.
MacGwire could not even look at the other men. “I’m sorry, but I can’t change what I said.”
Jason laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t fret yourself. With Angelique’s temper, Ian may well be bass bait in a fortnight. If the poachers don’t get him first, that is.”
“You may want to get on up, sir,” chimed in Dennis. “She might just pitch the little sod off the cliff, and ruin our fishing for a month.”
MacGwire shook his head slowly. “Had I but sons like any of you, Ian would never dare this.” With another shake of his shaggy head, he took to the path.
Angelique waited on top, her hair billowing blazing red in the cool morning breeze. She had seen the boats come, and Ian’s boat as well. Then the other boats left, and she knew her father had decided. But so had she.
“It’s no use, Angelique” Ian laid a cold, pasty hand too familiarly on her shoulder. “He’s never coming back.”
She did not dignify him with a look, but merely shook off his hand and continued gazing over the waters. “You like it that way, don’t you? Easier to take a man’s fish or his lover when he isn’t there?” She whirled and laid a slap against his cheek that echoed along the cliff. “As if I’d spend my life in a dirt hovel with the likes of you!” She spun back to face the sea. “Roddy said he’d come back, and I believe it. I’ll wait for him, no thank you!”
MacGwire appeared around the bend, his chest heaving from the exertion of the climb. “The wait is over, Angelique,” he said between gasps for air. “Life must go on, and the choice has been made. The parson will be here in two weeks, and you must make wedding plans.”
“But, Poppa, I am only sixteen, so I have more than two weeks’ time. And I have made my own choice.” She marched over and stuck the streamer in her father’s face. “I will wait for Roddy!” She stamped her shapely foot. “Ian Innis is a stinky fisherman, and a thief and a liar to boot! Did you think I would spend the rest of my life laying next to the smell of gutted fish and rotting nets? Or waiting for him to come home floating face down in the cove, a poacher’s knife in his back? And not a hair on his chest to make him half the man Roddy is!”
She spun around, throwing her long red hair across Ian’s face, and stepped back to the cliff’s edge. “Roddy set sail to find exotic lands and Moorish treasures. This little man,” and she flipped her fingers at Ian, “is content with stolen fish!”
“But Angelique,” MacGwire began, but the exhaustion and emotion conspired against him. He fell to his knees, hacking great gobs of blood out onto the stones. His daughter ran to him, while Ian stood and smirked.
“Now you see, Angelique,” he whispered, “why I must give you away. Soon I will not be able to provide for you. You are already sixteen, and I must see you cared for the best possible way. Ian has proven the best provider. It is the burden of a father, and I cannot rest ‘til I be released.”
“Then,” she said, “I release you.” She stood quickly and, eyes straight ahead, walked to the edge of the cliff. Ian made to grab her sleeve, but she trod on his toes and kept on going, eyes straight, step firm, red hair billowing out behind as she marched to the brink.
And stopped. A pebble rattled off the toe of her shoe and over the edge, bouncing on the rocks beneath. Angelique gasped and clutched the small pennant to her breast. All three stared out to sea.
A ship was coming round the point, a fine three-masted schooner riding low and full in the water. What caught the eye, though, was a large flag flying in the morning breeze: pure white cloth with a diagonal ocean-blue stripe, forever broken by two red crosses touching.
From the deck, a tall bronzed man pointed to the cliff and yelled a greeting. He then tore off his shirt and dove cleanly into the water.
Angelique turned and walked to her father, careful to step on Ian’s other foot. Gently, she helped him stand, while Ian gaped at the ship on the water.
“Come, Father,” she said. “Roddy’s home, and we have wedding plans to make.” Together they made their way down to the shoreline. Neither of them looked back.